CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Joe Schmidt was one of the last players out of the locker room Saturday night, left hand still fitted with a soft cast and right shoulder wrapped in ice. The relentlessly optimistic linebacker had been beaten down at Virginia.
And that made his pregame analysis of Notre Dame’s defense prophetic.
When asked midweek if the Texas performance would travel, if opening night against the Longhorns was more sustainable than that shutout of the Wolverines last September, Schmidt, a guy who genuinely seems to have all the answers, bit his tongue.
“I’m being careful,” Schmidt said Wednesday. “Because I hesitate to say anything more than should be said about one game and one victory.”
By saying nothing Schmidt said everything about what was coming. Brian VanGorder 2.0 already needs an update to fix persistent bugs and compatibility issues. The defense, suspected to overachieve last week, collapsed against a Cavaliers attack so mediocre that Virginia fans have already crafted a mock chant about it.
“Run the ball, run the ball, pass the ball, punt,” is how that goes. For the first quarter that’s how Saturday went. Virginia didn’t get a first down until the quarter’s final play. Then VanGorder’s scheme went bust. Pre-snap scrambles became the norm, Schmidt playing traffic cop for a secondary without direction.
“We just did some poor things in pass coverage,” said Brian Kelly. “We couldn't cover the 7-route to the corner into the short field. There’s a lot of things we need to do better in pass coverage.”
Notre Dame is supposed to have NFL talent in that secondary. Against Virginia, its best defensive back was actually linebacker Jaylon Smith.
With Georgia Tech on tap and Malik Zaire lost for the season, it’s not clear how much of these secondary issues matter in the short term. The Irish could solve the triple option next week and it wouldn’t mean all is well with VanGorder’s group. The reverse could also prove true.
Turns out we spent too much time after Texas on the big picture, including by this guy. Like Arkansas and Auburn complaining about Ohio State’s strength of schedule, that was worse than a waste of time. It was an ignorant use of attention.
There’s a reason why Notre Dame has won back-to-back games to start a season just 13 times in the last 30 years. It’s damn hard to do. This spectacular 34-27 comeback against Virginia was a reminder we shouldn’t have needed. We got one anyway, even before DeShone Kizer hit an inexplicably open Will Fuller for that 39-yard score, the latest game-winning touchdown in Notre Dame history.
Kelly took the right approach postgame when asked about making the playoffs, despite this roster no longer being his deepest or most talented, a claim he made in early August with Jarron Jones, Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Zaire all healthy. Do the Irish have the depth to overcome four next-men-in after two games?
“Heck yeah,” Kelly said. “DeShone doesn't have to win it himself as long as we can continue to support him. We have to play better defense. We have to play the pass better. If we can do that and support DeShone, we can be the kind of football team we want to be.”
Remember that Kelly is 15-1 when starting a red-shirt freshman or freshman quarterback at Notre Dame. He’ll be doing that the rest of the season whether it’s Kizer of Brandon Wimbush. Kelly can make this work on offense. What determines the season, including next week against Paul Johnson, will be how VanGorder picks up the pieces.
Maybe the material at VanGorder’s disposal was overrated. Maybe we undervalued the rust on KeiVarae Russell, the step lost by Schmidt, the domino impact of Crawford’s injury, the inexperience of Daniel Cage and the schematic gains of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.
Even if all that was true, even if Notre Dame’s defense was overvalued in raw materials, this defense still should have had a grip on Virginia. It was clear the Irish did not after the first quarter, allowing 388 yards and four touchdown drives – each at least 75 yards – from the second quarter through final.
Much of Notre Dame’s sterling record with young quarterbacks has been built on the defense holding up its end of the bargain. With what Kizer has at receiver and within the offensive line, plus CJ Prosise, the Irish have enough for a functional offense through November.
Saturday’s victory doesn’t need to be pyrrhic.
It’s on the defense to make sure it won’t be.